Paper Review: Elementary School Children’s Reasoning About Social Class

Mistry, R. S., Brown, C. S., White, E. S., Chow, K. A. & Gillen-O’Neel, C. (2015), Elementary school children’s reasoning about social class: A mixed-methods study. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12407

Against the backdrop, in the UK at least, of the imminent Labour Party leadership election, with supporters for the left-most candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, arguing for  “an economy which works for all, rejects austerity and places wealth and opportunity in the hands of the millions and not simply the millionaires”,  it seemed timely to look at this paper, examining as it does, children’s conceptions and understanding of social class.

The authors looked at 117 U.S. children’s (aged 10-12 years) placing of their family on a ten-rung ladder from people who have most money, to people who have least money, and were asked to tell researchers why they had placed themselves there. Additionally, children were asked what came to mind when talking about “rich, middle-class, and poor” people, and completed attitude scales of people in these categories. Further to this, their parents reported on the family income and subjective social class.

Children were asked to indicate what proportion of [rich] people would display each trait.

Children were asked to indicate what proportion of [rich] people would display each trait.

This was one of the first studies to test not simply the effects of social class (there are many of those studies out there) but to look at children’s understanding of social class. The authors expected that children would express the most negative beliefs about the poor as compared to the rich and middle class, and that childrens beliefs about the middle class (the modal class) would  be most positive.

The authors found that children’s understanding of their family’s income was informed by knowledge of material possessions, by lifestyle characteristics, and by comparison with others. Children rated “the poor” as having fewer positive attributes and more negative attributes than the “middle class”, and fewer positive attributes than “the rich”. Children who perceived that they were poor held less positive attitudes toward the poor than children who saw themselves as more middle class. But what does this mean for their understanding, exactly? 

Developmental Intergroup Theory

This study was framed within Developmental Intergroup Theory (DIT; Bigler & Liben, 2007) which, simply put,  proposes that children will categorize individuals according to salient perceptual dimensions and, seeing these dimensions used by adults in their classifications, develop hypotheses about why these dimensions are important for classification. What is it then that children pick up about social class categories?

Support was found here, for the tenets of DIT. Specifically, almost three quarters of the children in the current study rated their socioeconomic status as somewhere in the middle (i.e., ladder ratings between 5 and 7). Children seem to consider themselves part of the normative group. Furthermore, children were particularly focused on the concrete aspects of their social class, such as what they are (or are not) able to buy, what their house is like, and how their lifestyle differs from their friends’ (as opposed to noting more abstract features of having / not having money, such as security). 

As well as this, this paper goes beyond quantitative findings, and details careful qualitative exploration of why children understood their socio-economic status to be as they did. For example, one child said:

Well, I was thinking that at the top of the ladder, thats someone like J.K. Rowling, theyd just breally wealthy and the next one is like someone who is pretty wealthy and this one is [pointing to the next rung on the ladder], they probably live in a really big house and I think I might be here [points down] because I think my family has enough money to be comfortable and were happy and like we dont have a hard time, but its not likwe have a lot of money and its not like we live in a huge housewe live in a little house in [neighborhood] but its just nice and a nice size.  (p. 10). 

clearly indicating social comparison, and concreteness in describing their house size.

Who lives here?

Who lives here?

However, it may be that the tendency to identify as middle class is precisely because children imagined extreme examples of rich and poor (as above), and by default, somewhere between those extremes implies middle class. It would then be the nuances within “middle class” that would be interesting to look at – how do I compare with my friends? classmates? And how does that matter? 

And Beyond DIT

Further results showed that children did  associate the most negative attributes with the poor relative to the rich. They rated the poor as both higher in negative attributes and lower in positive attributes compared to the other social class group. When it came to their own group,, children who saw themselves as poorer rated the poor as having more negative attributes than the other more middle class children. This has echoes of the doll studies of the 1970s – where Black children preferred the White doll, rating the Black doll negatively. However, as the author’s note, in absolute terms, negative ratings weren’t that bad – only a “few” or “some” people had the negative traits.

Considering that children were asked to identify their socioeconomic status on the ladder rungs, it is also worth noting that no child rated themselves on the two lowest rungs of the ladder, and none self- identied as poor per sé. It is also worth mentioning that a measure of social identity with one’s social class was not taken. And, although the qualitative reports indicated some understanding of where money might come from, social mobility across social class was not measured either.

There is also the issue of this being a one-shot study, with a correlational design. That is, it is a snapshot of one school, at one point in time, with set diversity in terms of social class. Further research might usefully open up this diversity. For example, what happens in affluent areas, or private schools, where socioeconomic class is normativity high? Or between those who have or have not won scholarships for their study? How do perceptions of social class shape in-class interactions – or vice versa? And crucially, for a research program basing itself in the developmental intergroup framework – how do these perceptions develop? Only 10-12 year-olds were tested here: where did their ideas come from? And is the class system fair? Is it fixed?  Children were furnished with three class categories here: given the homogeneity in seeing themselves as middle class, what are the important  differences for them?

So, this was one of the first studies to look at children’s understanding of social class. It showed that children had awareness of their class, had differential attitudes towards other classes, and could explain how they came to perceive themselves as belonging to a given class. And, as with the best of research, there is now a multitude of questions remaining. What about “social identity”? How does age play a role here? How do children understand the notion of “social mobility” when it comes to SES? How does this interact with their moral reasoning about equality and justice? And then other, related questions spring to mind: how should we treat children from different classes? How do children’s perceptions relate to those of their parents? If you’ll excuse the pun, children’s reasoning about social class is indeed a rich area of research.


Paper Review: Children’s Prosocial Behaviour after an Earthquake

Vezzali, L., Drury, J., Cadamuro, A., & Versari, A. (2015). Sharing distress increases helping and contact intentions via one-group representation and inclusion of the other in the self: Children’s prosocial behaviour after an earthquake. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. doi: 10.1177/1368430215590492

As a study of real-life social identities, and among children, I couldn’t wait to read this paper. So, not put off by my university’s lack of access, I approached an author for a copy. And having read it, I can confirm that it is very well conceived. The authors looked at 517 Italian children’s (aged 7-12 years) responses to other children said to be similarly affected by two major earthquakes in the country (details of the earthquake are linked below).


This was a first – to test a social identity account of disaster responses among survivors, rather than third party helpers in a quantitative way – and to do so with children as participants. The authors found positive support for a social identity account, showing that social identity processes can explain positive responses towards survivors who were once seen as “other” outgroup members– but what does that mean exactly?

Identity Fusion 

Work in adults suggests that if you are psychologically adversely affected  by an event (and experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress) this can lead to feeling closer to other disaster survivors, and to inclusion of those other survivors in your concept of yourself. The authors employed an oft-used pictorial measure (Aron, 1992) to tap into into this – with one circle representing “you” and one “another survivor” . The circles were drawn with increasing degree of overlap between them, and children had to choose the circles-pair showing how close they felt to other survivors.

And it was found that there was a positive association between the degree of post-traumatic stress reported, and identity fusion (closeness to other survivors). And while I could argue that closeness is just the emotional part of one’ s social identity, and the authors could also have measured the cognitive and centrality aspects of social identity,this is compelling and face-valid evidence that being affected by the earthquake is linked to feeling close to others similarly affected.

Common Ingroup Identity
The authors tested the Common Ingroup Identity model (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000) as a framework for understanding how identity fusion could lead to positive responses to other survivors. This model posits that certain circumstances, like earthquake disasters, can lead to people in the ingroup, formerly “us”, and in the outgroup, formerly “them”, being subsumed , in the mind’s eye, into the same superordinate category “all of us”. This, in turn, means that people once seen as “them”, will now be evaluated using the same positive regard once reserved for “us”.

Based on this, the authors hypothesized that perceiving other child survivors of the earthquake as part of a common group should explain why identity fusion is asssociated with a greater desire for contact with, and help-giving to, other, formerly outgroup member, survivors. This was measured with one item, “Children involved in the earthquake belong to the same group, the group of children.”. Only contact, but not help-giving was linked with the perception of being one, common group. This could be due to the use of just one item, or due to differential understandings in the sample regarding what this “one group” meant. We know from other research that belonging to a group, and what that means, is understood differently by 7, 9, and 12 year-olds (e.g, Sani & Bennett, 2004).

Helping and Contact Intentions

The authors outcome measures were contact and help-giving intentions towards formerly “other” outgroup members who were also earthquake survivors. The rationale for this was that adults are more likely to want to meet and help people perceived as belonging to the ingroup (Haslam, Reicher, & Levine, 2012), so to might children.

They used three items, adapted from Cameron and Rutland (2006), and from Vezzali, Capozza, Stathi, and Giovannini (2012) to measure outgroup contact. Children were asked, if they met at the park an unknown child involved in the earthquake as they were, whether they would like to meet, play, and have an ice cream with him/her. For help-giving, three items from Vezzali, Stathi, et al. (in press), were used, asking whether participants would help an unknown child involved in the earthquake as they are writing, doing mathematics, and finding a book s/he has lost.

Here, it was found that the greater the perceived identity fusion, the greater intent to help and make contact with other child survivors. However, it may be argued that the term “unknown child” is ambiguous here. Might the unknown child actually have been seen as an ingroup member before the earthquake? Perhaps they were not in the same class or friendship group – but they were told that the child was in the same school.  As other research (e.g., Nipedal, Nesdale, & Killen, 2010 ) uses ingroup / outgroup distinctions along school lines, a definite attempt to situate the unknown child as a formerly “outgroup” member might fruitfully be made in future research.

So, there was a positive link between most of the variables that were considered here. Greater post traumatic stress symptoms were linked with greater identity fusion. Greater identity fusion was linked to a greater desire fore contact and for help-giving – and there was also a positive link between identity fusion, common ingroup perception and contact. And, as with the best of research, there is now a multitude of questions remaining. What about other aspects of “social identity”? How does age play a role here? How do children understand the notion of a “common ingroup” and an “outgroup member” in this context? What about intentions to agress / be unhelpful towards / avoid other survivors? And then other, related questions spring to mind: What if the other child was worse / better off than them before / after the disaster? How do children’s perceptions relate to those of their parents? Do cultural norms associated with helping matter? Children’s capacity for prosociality in the face of adversity is indeed a rich area of research.

Guess Taboo? Children’s Discussions of Race and Ethnic Prejudice

guesswhoIn a recent study, Cameron, Brady, and Abbott (2013) tested a group of children using a version of the children’s game, ‘Guess Who?’. The game was contrived, so that asking about the race of your opponent’s character would enable winning more quickly than not asking about it. Yet, rarely would children ask this question – and they were even less likely to do so in ethnically diverse classrooms. In other words, children would rather lose a game, than mention the category “race”. Why is it that ‘race’ is taboo for children?

I was reminded of these findings earlier this week at a talk I attended by Darren Chetty, @rapclassroom, from the IoE in London. In speaking to his 2014 paper, he argued that two books, Elmer’s Special Day and Tusk Tusk, both by David McKee, and both recommended by Philosophy for Children practitioners as starting points for philosophical enquiry into racism, multiculturalism and diversity, do not truly allow for an open discussion on race. Rather, he argues, ‘animal stories’ separate racism from its temporal and spatial context, limiting opportunities for engaging philosophically with the topic – and maybe even contributing, paradoxically, to the taboo.


Elmer, the patchwork elephant


To briefly review the texts, Elmer  is a patchwork elephant, who really wants to be like other grey elephants, who are happy. But he  is nothing like them. To resolve this, the other elephants have an Elmer day each year, where they paint themselves in a vast array of different pretty patterns, like Elmer’s patchwork. Elmer paints himself grey. Tusk Tusk  tells the tale of the black elephants and the white elephants. They don’t like each other. So, some of them fight and die. The ones that don’t fight, go to the jungle, and emerge years later as grey elephants. The book ends with the big-eared elephants giving funny looks to the little-eared elephants. I listened to Chetty’s analysis of these stories, with a social identity theorist hat on, and found myself, sometimes agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing with the points that were made.  Before going further it is worth noting that McKee states he never intended the books to be about colour or race. Nevertheless, what follows is my take on the two ‘elephant stories’, given Philosophy for Children’s recommendation.

Elmer is a patchwork elephant. But, If there are no other patchwork elephants, there is no opportunity to talk about group differences. Since ethnicity is a group categorization, this does seem at odds with a pathway into discussing ethnic prejudice. It might open up talking about exclusion, and exclusion can be on the grounds of race, so we could discuss the immorality of excluding someone on the grounds of race, on this basis – but it would be hard to cast this as a group-based exclusion – which ethnic prejudice arguably is – because there are no other patchwork elephants. The felt exclusion is of one  individual, and ethnic prejudice is more than that.

Tusk Tusk  has the group element that Elmer lacks. So, as a social identity theorist, this would make for better material. There are two groups, who dislike each other, and fight. This is resolved by all the elephants becoming grey over time. End of group differences, or not, as the text hints. So, we can open discussion about groups that dislike each other. There is no reason given in the texts about why the groups dislike each other – which Chetty argues is undesirable. Whilst I  agree that the lack of power dynamic isn’t helpful – ethnic prejudice is about a majority group’s treatment of the minority – the lack of explanation would, on the other hand, allow a competent, confident teacher to talk about the possible reasons for the intergroup hatred, and even to introduce the notion of power. …

One philiosophy for tackling ethnic prejudice is colour-blindness. This argues that everyone should be treated equally, and attempts at differential treatment  by race should be disregarded and dismantled. Perhaps this hints at the ontology for the taboo above. Maybe, if teachers use this strategy, they are implicitly telling children not to talk about race.  An alternative philosophy to colour-blindness is multiculturalism (for a discussion of these ideologies and their respective benefits, see Plaut, Thomas, & Goren, 2009). Multiculturalism acknowledges the differences between races, and in social identity terms, is about  acknowledging and celebrating group differences, because not to do so undermines the cultural heritage of non-white individuals, and, is thus detrimental to the well being of ethnic minorities. Multiculturalism doesn’t enter the picture in Tusk Tusk.  Group differences lead to hatred. The elephants are content to the extent that they all see themselves as similar. But there is celebration of difference in Elmer and I see whispers of multiculturalism here. Again though, Elmer  isn’t so much a culture, as an individual…if only there were other patchwork elephants…..


And what of the historical context of ethnic prejudice? Neither text addresses the inequalities or tensions between different elephants. And reflecting on the social identity research with children and race (and ethnic prejudice) I realize that  not much of it addresses this element either. Drew Nesdale and colleagues (e.g., Griffiths & Nesdale, 2006) and Killen and colleagues (e.g., Brenick & Killen, 2014) research real-life ethnic minority / majority affect- but only take implicit account of the group histories. These studies show consistently, when conflict is current and historical, that children have an ingroup-bias for their own ethnicity. It would be worth, I realize, from Chetty’s talk (with thanks due to him), looking at children’s understanding of the reason for group’s prejudices towards each other, and how groups should treat one another in light of these histories.  Might we then see a more positive attitude towards the outgroup than the ingroup – in stark contrast to the findings of the papers cited in this paragraph above?

In sum, Elmer  and Tusk Tusk  are each decidedly lacking in some of the elements that would be useful for direct discussion of the stories’ in relation to the topic of racism and inter-group prejudice. A competent teacher might well still be able to use them as the basis for discussion, particularly for Elmer  in terms of social exclusion, and Tusk Tusk  in terms of intergroup hatred. There is reason not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, when this is borne in mind. In light of  the taboo around race, which might lie in the colour-blind ideology, there is also good reason, given that we know children display ethnic ingroup bias, to (a) look at children’s reasoning about multiculturalism, and (b) to put ethnic prejudice  into its historical context, in our social identity research. The results could be revealing.

Paper Review: Children’s and adolescents’ moral emotion attributions and judgements about exclusion of peers with hearing impairments

Chilver-Stainer, C., Gasser, L., & Perrig-Chiello, P. (2014). Children’s and adolescents’ moral emotion attributions and judgements about exclusion of peers with hearing impairments, Journal of Moral Education, 43, 3, 235-249, DOI:10.1080/03057240.2014.913515

Browsing Research Gate earlier this week, in the name of “constructive procrastination” (read: putting off re-analyzing some data for a little while longer), I discovered the above paper. One key criticism of my group-based emotion and social exclusion research is that it is very experimental (the groups in my studies are contrived by me, and don’t ever interact with one another for the sake of experimental control), and I am keen to look at what goes on when researchers test actual, real-life groups, so this one was worth following up.

So what happened here? Well, the researchers looked at how  215 Swiss 10-, 12- and 15-year-olds attending mainstream school felt about, and judged, the social exclusion of peers with hearing impairments.This sample is worthy of comment before I describe the study. It is said in the paper that there were a number of children with hearing impairment in the children’s class – yet (while these children’s parental approval of the study was sought) these children did not participate. This struck me, because I am asked by our ethics board to include all children in my research on disability and inclusion (and have tested those with disabilities) – and even if I hadn’t been, I wouldn’t want to exclude children with disabilities. Rather, even if numerically less significant, the qualitative responses of children with hearing impairment to these scenarios would have been interesting. This is another case where half the research design is apparently missing.

Moving on. Scenarios of social exclusion in different contexts were shown to the children.  There were four different scenarios, where a hearing child and a child with hearing impairment wanted to join an activity, but unfortunately, there was only room left for one more child. The protagonist decided to pick the hearing child in doing so excluded the child with hearing impairment.  (Note: the constant exclusion of the child with hearing impairment means that we cannot be sure that later measures relate to exclusion based on disability per se, as we have nothing to compare it to). The scenarios described either (a) a group of children preparing a presentation (b) a child doing oral homework, (c) a birthday party or (d) talking with a child about shared interests. The activities always involved oral communication. Nevertheless, participants were told that the hearing child and the child with hearing impairment were equally qualified for the activity. The contextual variables here were school versus home, and group versus dyadic interaction.

Next, participants were asked what emotions the protagonist might feel with respect to the exclusion, and how they judged their behaviour. So the two questions were: ‘How do you think Erwin [the excluder] will feel? Why?’. Participants could select one or two of the following emotions: proud, happy, sad, neutral, angry, fearful, guilty, ashamed or empathetic, and ‘What do you think? Is it good or bad that Oliver chose Rolf [the hearing child]? Why?’. There are several things to say about these two questions, even though they are derived from previous research (just because everyone else is doing it….).

Firstly, the first question is forced choice. Children were asked to select one or two emotions. This limits their responses: one could quite easily imagine a situation where a child might feel guilty and sad about having to exclude the child – as well as feeling fearful of the repercussions, and angry that they had to choose in the first place. Rather then, emotions could have been measured on Likert-type scales – ‘To what extent does X feel?’.. This would allow for neutral judgments of some emotions, whilst allowing children to indicate the ones they would expect the excluder to feel most strongly (leading to a more sensitive index). Furthermore, in later analysis, emotions were classified as moral (sad, guilty, ashamed, empathetic) or amoral (proud, happy, neutral, angry, fearful). In the adult emotion literature I am aware of pride and anger are very much moral emotions (cf. Saab, Tausch, Spears, & Cheung, 2014Tangney,  Stuewig & Mashek, 2007).

Secondly, the  question, about moral judgements. One could argue that this is a leading question – is it good or bad? Some actions might be morally neutral. Yet this is not, apparently, an option. One also wonders what children might be led to say, on the basis of having a teacher in the classroom (neutral territory?), supervising the research. This question is highly susceptible to the problem of social desirability bias (for this group of children at least: of course it’s wrong!) and also to audience effects. Who are the children responding to? The teacher? The school? The researcher? Other children? As research shows, who you tell participants will see your answers, makes a dramatic difference to what they report (e.g., Rutland, Cameron, Milne, & McGeorge, 2005). Moreover, classes differ in their inclusivity norms (cf. Glasser et al., 2013) and this point of reference would be worthy of future study.

Finally, participants inclusive behaviour was assessed through  peer nomination of those in the class who “let other children participate”. This was a good idea. Having peer nominations as well as self-report reduces shared method variance, and gives a different perspective from the child’s own on how inclusive they are. The inclusive behaviour measure also brings these researchers closer to measuring actual behaviour than most of the scenario-based literature in this field. Unfortunately, participants were then split into not-inclusive or inclusive, based on the mean scores given from this task (rather than absolute scores, as used in a lot of the bullying literature) to ensure that some children fell into each category. I would argue that retaining the continuous nature of the initial variable would have led to a richer pattern of results.

Quentin Blake argues for greater inclusion of disabled characters in children's books.

Quentin Blake argues for greater inclusion of disabled characters in children’s books. Image from:

Another potential strength of this study is its mixed method approach. As you will have noted from above, the authors asked ‘why’ a character might feel that way, and ‘why’ the children felt that way about him or her. Unfortunately, as the authors note, the increasingly elaborate answers with children’s age likely reflects their writing, rather than their reasoning ability. Nevertheless, it was found, in line with prior research that reasoning correlated with emotion, was particularly astute among more inclusive children, and fell into one of two categories; moral reasons for feeling bad following exclusion (e.g., equal rights for all), social-functioning reasons for exclusion (e.g., he would slow the group down). Examples of negative moral reasoning (it was the most efficient thing to do) and positive social-function reasoning (he would have added something new to the group) were not given in the paper. If this dichotomy exists (if children did justify exclusion on moral grounds, or encourage inclusion on social-functioning grounds) a four-way split of the data would have been interesting to examine.

It is perhaps the latter of these categories (social-function reasoning for exclusion) that demands further exploration, since it reflects children’s beliefs about when exclusion is OK. As noted above, the scenarios cited the oral nature of the interaction – which children with a hearing impairment might find challenging. Given that children were told they could equally cope with the task, if one took the stance that it is never OK to exclude someone with a hearing impairment, then modifying these beliefs associated with this kind of interaction would be a key focus for intervention. Again, however, another element of the research design is lacking. Research shows that children misperceive disabilities such that impairment “spreads” (eg., Abrams et al., 1990). So, for example, in my research, children have said that a child in a wheelchair because she is unable to walk wouldn’t be able to play a musical instrument. Thus, measuring children’s exclusion justifications where a child with a hearing impairment was excluded in a non-oral interaction would be worth looking at.

It would also be interesting to take further advantage of the open-ended questioning to look at ways in which children think about overcoming the exclusion (e.g., how could you include X in the group?). I present children with a “winning ticket” scenario (the child has four tickets, and four friends) similar to the group-leisure scenario above. We discuss in groups how the friend left without a ticket might feel, and what can be done to mend those feelings. And the children come up with very creative ways of sorting things out, even when I emphasise the fact that there are only four tickets to be had. Examining children’s strategies for dealing with unfair exclusion, in order to enhance these would also be worthy of future research.

Bringing this together then, this study looked at hearing children’s responses to the reported forced-choice exclusion of a child with a hearing impairment from either a leisure or school, group or dyadic interaction, as given in a scenario. Additionally, and unlike previous research, children’s actual inclusion behaviour was also examined. And the evidence showed that moral emotions were linked to moral justifications in a similar way to prior research, with inclusive children being more in tune with this. However, this is a piece of a much larger jigsaw. We must now ask many questions: how do reasons differ for positive versus negative emotions? What audience are the children responding to? What do child with a hearing impairment think? Does the nature of the interaction matter? And what happens afterwards? Exclusion isn’t the end of the story.

Paper Review: Cooley and Killen (in press): Children’s Evaluations of Resource Allocation in the Context of Group Norms

Cooley, S., & Killen, M. (in press). Children’s evaluations of resource allocation in the context of group norms. Developmental Psychology.

What do you do when your group has a norm for fairness and equality, and someone in your group advocates for inequality that would benefit the group? Extant research shows that, for very young children, equality trumps all other values, including group loyalty and ingroup bias but that, as we get older, peer relations, existing resources, and a whole host of other factors will come into play (e.g., Blake & McAuliffe, 2011). In their paper, Cooley and Killen deal with the tension between moral values and ingroup bias, in a kindergarten setting. Children, aged three and a half to six years were asked to give their opinion of a classmate [deviant] who either (a) advocated for unequal shares of building blocks when the class had a norm for equal sharing, or (b) advocated for equal sharing of building blocks when the class had a norm for sharing the blocks in its favour (i.e., giving itself more blocks). What happened?

Cooley and Killen report that most children had a dim view of children who went against the class norm by dividing things unequally, even when it benefitted their class; they explained their opinion in terms of the importance of fairness. However, participants who appreciated those classmates who shared resources in the class’s favour reasoned about group functioning and the group benefits . With age, children displayed increasing social group nous by differentiating their own opinion of the classmate who runs counter to class norms from their expectations of the group’s likely opinion of this classmate.

This research finding is notable for several reasons. Previous research looking at fairness and peer relations in this age group had done so  in terms of dyads. For example, Olson and Spelke (2008) found that found that three and a half year-olds allocated equal resources to puppet friend dyads more often than to non-friend dyads. And, Paulus and Moore (2014) demonstrated that preschool aged children expected a person to share more with a friend than a disliked peer. More often, however, children’s experiences of peer relations are packaged in terms of groups. Children learn about group identities, like gender and ethnicity from the preschool years, and a plethora of research has shown how these categories shape their opinions of others, as well as their choices of playmate and classroom behaviour (for a review see Bennett & Sani, 2004). This research paper speaks to group processes.

And this research is more “real” than its predecessors. Often such research makes use of  a minimal group paradigm (where judgements of others and resource allocation are based solely on group membership) where the minimal groups are contrived at random,  at the start of the study. Here, children made judgements about their membership class (be it for example the red class), and an outgroup [orange] class. These were actual classes in their school and judgements were made on the basis of a photo’ board of the real class. However, judgements seem to have been made about a fictional member of the class. So, there was no prior knowledge of that individual characteristics about them, upon which judgements could have been based. The study also measured children’s identification with their class (as opposed to simple liking for it). Unfortunately, identification ratings were not then factored into any of the analyses  – and like me, they didn’t measure outgroup identification (oh, to have Dr. Hindsight as a colleague) –  but identification was measured – and found to be high – which is good.


The red room and the orange room from Cooley and Killen (in press) Developmental Psychology


It was interesting to note that the authors found no difference between opinions of the counter-normative classmate, depending on whether he was a member of the child’s class, or another class (e.g., the red class or the orange class). This is interesting to note because it is at odds with literature on the black sheep effect. (e.g., Abrams, Rutland, & Cameron, 2003, Abrams et al., 2013). Such research  tells us that ingroup members think ingroup deviants, like the classmate in these scenarios, should be treated more severely than outgroup deviants, for the same norm-transgression: it is possible that this is because behaving in line with, or in favour of, outgroup members represents more of a threat, than simply not following the group rules. Yet, the authors state,

 ” participants viewed it just as wrong for an ingroup member to deviate from an equal group norm as it was for an outgroup member to do so” (p. 9).

This is worthy of further investigation. It is possible that this null finding is due to  the classes’ actual existence, as opposed to research where this finding is detected in minimal group settings. There again, maybe the black sheep effect itself, in children at least, is an artefact of the minimal group paradigm….It would be worth controlling for this – and also for the “reality” of the colour-coded groupings, which may carry unknown histories or status differentials. As a case in point, when I was in Reception class (UK aged 4-5 years) I was in the red group. There was also a yellow group , a green group, and a blue group – in other words, a rainbow. And the red group were the best at reading, then yellow, and so on. And as 4 year-olds, we all knew this to be the case, even though groupings weren’t used by the teachers to make this clear to us…

A further potential avenue for future exploration surrounds the initial creation, and ingroup knowledge of the ingroup norm – which is unsourced, so far as I can tell. Who is the classmate who deviates transgressing against? The class as a whole, or their teacher, or an aggregate of past exchanges (as seems to be inferred “your group like to….”?) How is this class norm knowledge obtained? Is it displayed prominently in the classroom as a prescriptive norm, or is it a descriptive norm for class action (cf. Hitti et al., 2013). One might also ask at what level the norm of  “equality” is important to the children. If the red class already had ten building blocks, and the orange class none, would they still want to divide new blocks equally? What reasons beyond group functioning could be given a priori to the children for unequal allocation of resources? What if the classmate deviant wanted to address an existing inequality in resource allocation – giving less to the ingroup? Is equality-in-the-moment, or absolute equality what matters?

Further interesting questions remain, now that Cooley and Killen have brought this finding into the group domain. Children were asked whether the class/they as participants would like / want to be friends with the deviant classmate. This leads me to wonder what the effect of the class actively friending or de-friending versus individually friending or de-friending the deviant might be? How would this manifest itself in the classroom(s)?  What does to like/dislike or friend/not-friend a child look like to the children? How would they expect the deviant child to respond? Does the outgroup class know of this like/dislike ? What do they make of it? And, in the case of ingroup deviant dislike, are the boundaries between the [sic] red and orange classrooms permeable? Can children move classes? Would the outgroup class be more likely to accept an ingroup deviant into their fold?  Would the children, given the option, suggest that this should be the case, rather than dislike or de-friending (reported based on the forced choice they were given)?

This research suggests that children aged three and a half to six years privilege equality over group functioning – recognizing differences between their opinions and the likely consensus of the group, as they age. The best kind of research asks more questions than it answers, and this is undoubtedly the case here.There is so much we still have to find out about children’s moral reasoning as group members.

Much Ado About Academic Essay Writing

By virtue of a course on lecturing that I had to attend over the past year, I got to research a lot on student writing. And there’s a lot out there. I might speculate on why this is – the numerous email messages I get from students – and the high proportion of these that are about essay writing might give me a clue. In my research paper, one student gave advice for future students thus:

Make sure the content of your draft is as good as possible (i.e. read everything you want to before the draft deadline) so that the draft comments are focused on how to make the essay read better

What I sense in this, and in a lot of the messages I receive, is a fear of writing – of defining one’s own carefully thought-out arguments in the wrong way. Drafts seemed to be students’ safety net – the fear, about striking out alone. As an academic I have to do a lot of writing. And outside work, I write for pleasure, too. I love writing. It’s one of the best things about being an academic – getting paid to write (albeit indirectly).

Given the messages I’ve had from students about writing, I’d like to use this post to share some of their thoughts with you, and to look at ways of becoming a more confident writer. In a nutshell, of course.

Shut up and Write Group - Oxford Brookes Psychology

Shut up and Write Group – Oxford Brookes Psychology

1. Practise, practise, practise. Here’s a secret. If you’ve got the information straight in your mind, there’s no wrong way of writing it down. There are different ways of expressing said information, and some will be clearer than others. Play around with different ways of writing the same sentence. Find which you like. Find a voice that suits you. Don’t just write for academia either – write in your spare time; write something you’d like to read – write for no one else’s eyes but yours. The more experience you have with writing, the easier words will flow.

2. Don’t forget your reader[s]. Think about where they’re coming from, what they know already, and the  gaps you need to fill for them. In any piece of academic writing, always set out what terms mean for you, at the start. “Parenting” can mean different things to different disciplines – so can “depression” and “effective”. Tell your readers what they can expect the content of the piece to be – and afterwards, sum up what that content was. If the two descriptions don’t match – something needs revising.

3. Write [and plan] in paragraphs. Most academic pieces have word counts. So work out how many paragraphs you’ll need to write, and bound your writing into those paragraphs. Do not write outside of a paragraph. Ever. If you have six paragraphs,  you can make six points – so what are the six key points  that need to be made – what are the key things that need to be included to present your argument? Give each point a topic sentence, an exploration, and a take home-message.

4. Join a “shut up and write” group at your school or university (or start one). Sit down with a few friends in a coffee shop. Tell each other what you’re going to write, and then spend the next half hour writing, in silence. If you start with a clear goal, you’ll get more done in that time, than you thought you could (trust me). Sharing a little of what you write with the group, also prevents the isolating nightmare that academia can otherwise become from setting in, and gives you the chance to get and give encouragement.

5. Start now. Grab a note pad or start a blog and get going. You don’t have to start with writing your opening paragraph, or your take-home sentence. Start with what you like, what you know, work out what you don’t know, and write from there.

Happy Writing 🙂

Thanks to Tim Kourdi for this “shut up and write” location, and for chocolate cake to keep us going.

Come on, Barbie, let’s go party?

I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world
Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!
You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation….


Children’s toys are ripe subject for debate. The debate covers issues such as gender (with Lego responding recently with a range marketed specifically for girls), race (why are Black dolls sold more cheaply?) and morality (playing violent games is associated with delayed empathy).

Psychology has had a voice in this debate. And this voice has been particularly loud, when it comes to Barbie dolls. This week, a news article reported that a doll called Lammily, is close to being produced; a doll that is based on the proportions of a typical US 19 year-old. 



What would the psychological research evidence make of this?  One of the key players in the ‘Barbie debate’ is Helgar Dittmar. Her research (e.g., Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive, 2006) found that girls (aged 5-8 years) exposed to Barbie dolls reported lower body satisfaction  and greater desire for a thinner body shape than girls exposed to an Emme doll (who has a UK dress size 16). The effect was particularly strong among first-grade children. 





Other research by Anschutz and Engels (2010) suggests that girls aged 6-10 years who played with Barbie dolls, rather than an average-sized doll, or Lego, then ate significantly less than their counterparts playing with those toys. Sherman and Zurbriggen (2014) recently found that playing with a Barbie doll rather than a Mrs. Potato Head doll affected  girls’ (aged 4–7 years) opinions of occupations that they could do themselves, especially when thinking about male-dominated careers.These girls also reported that they had fewer future career options available to them than boys.

These are small scale studies, with short-term outcome measures, of course. The taste-test immediately followed Anschultz and Engels’ testing, and body dissatisfaction was measured straight after exposure to the Barbie dolls by Dittmar and her colleagues. I know of many scientists, including me, who once played with Barbie dolls (so we can’t make large claims from the career aspirations of 4-7 year-olds…). The studies are also cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal in nature, so the long-term impact of playing with Barbie dolls is implied.

The control conditions (Mrs. Potato head, Emme, Lego)  are also different across the studies above. This is important in terms of Lammily, because it is not only proportion that has been altered vis-a-vis Barbie. Her wardrobe and make-up will also be different, with less make-up, and a less extravagant closet. The above studies have focused (mainly) on body image in terms of Barbie’s unrealistic proportions. What if it isn’t only Barbie’s size that girls pay attention to, but her make up, and dress, too? In other words, to what counts as (physical) sex appeal in women? Is this more general concept what they aspire to? We know that clothes didn’t change opinion in Sherman and Zurbriggen’s study: their career aspirations were lower whether Barbie was dressed as a doctor or not. What would happen if studies  looked at Emme in the different career roles, or Dr. Barbie’s effect on body dissatisfaction? Is it Barbie’s proportions or her overall appearance that matter more?

The existing evidence points to more positive outcomes for playing with Lammily, over Barbie, but exactly why that may be the case, remains to be seen.

Picking Teams on the Playground: A review of Hitti et al. (2013)

Hitti, A., Mulvey, K.L., Rutland, A., Abrams, D. & Killen, M. (2013). When is it okay to exclude a member of the ingroup? Children’s and adolescents’ social reasoning. Social Development. doi: 10.1111/sode.12047

teamspickingWhen I was a child, at school in the UK, we used to pick teams on the playground. Allan Ahlberg reflects on this in his poem Picking Teams, published in Please, Mrs. Butler:



When we pick teams in the playground,
Whatever the game might be,
There’s always somebody left till last
And usually it’s me.
I stand there looking hopeful
And tapping myself on the chest,
But the captains pick the others first,
Starting, of course, with the best.

Maybe if teams were sometimes picked
Starting with the worst,
Once in his life a boy / girl like me
Could end up being first!


Social exclusion and rejection are typically labeled in school policy as a form of bullying, and picking teams in this way is less popular than it used to be, because it  could exacerbate problems surrounding social exclusion (e.g., Sleap & Wormald, 2006). The emphasis in anti-bullying policy advice is on inclusion. Yet, might there be occasions when children consider it better in the long-run to exclude a child (and when adults might agree with them)? As a case in point, consider that school exclusion is one of the more popular methods of dealing with bullying, as I discussed in this blog post.

The above question is the one considered by Hitti and her colleagues (2013). They tested 381 children between the ages of 9-13 years, finding that the acceptability of social exclusion from a peer group, following rule breaking  decreased with age, but, interestingly, also changed according to the rule that was broken. Where the rule concerned dress code, exclusion was viewed as much less acceptable than when they had allocated money between groups unequally, and broken a “fairness” rule. The authors claim that no research has yet looked at when children think exclusion might be legitimate.

The specific claim here then, is that the type of rule, or group norm, that is being violated matters. And for some rules, exclusion is OK. Let’s look in a bit more depth at how they arrived at that conclusion. This was an interview study for nine year-olds, and a survey study for 13 year-olds. Participants were shown a group of eight children of the same gender and asked to choose a group symbol and, from a list of activities, the kind of things that they get up to together. They were told about the groups’ norm, ‘Your group does x’ ‘The other group does Y’, and were given vignettes to read:

Dress Code Rule-Breaking

These are groups that are given special shirts that they wear to the school assembly.
 This way everybody knows which group people belong to. In the past, your group has
 worn their green and white club shirts. In the past the other group has not worn their red
 and black club shirts because they think it’s not ‘cool’. . . . Stephanie, who is also in your
 group, wants to be different from the other members of your club. She does not wear her
 green and white club shirt to the first big assembly of the year.

Money Allocation Rule-Breaking

The Student Council . . . [has] $100 to give out to the groups. . . . In the past, when your
 group has talked about it they have voted to give $50 to your own group and $50 to the
 other group. In the past, when the other group has talked about it they have voted to give
 $80 to their own group and $20 to your group. . . . Sally, who is also in your group, wants
 to be different from the other members of the club. She says that your group should get $80 and the other group should get $20. 

Following this, children were asked for reasons to justify the (il)legitimacy of exclusion of the ingroup deviant. To my mind, it is these findings that are the most interesting part of the research, as I’ll explain below.

So, what was it about the rule violation that led to the legitimacy judgments?  Participants were told that the ingroup deviant was excluded for (for example) distributing money equally, rather than in the ingroup’s favour, which was the group’s rule, – but what does this actually constitute, rule-wise? In other words, is the exclusion justified in terms of behaving out of sync with ingroup norms, or for behaving in line with the out group’s norms (because, in this case, it is the outgroup  that has a rule for equal distribution of money between groups)? Children’s reasoning makes reference to both possibilities:

‘She’s going against what the group wants.’

‘She’s acting like she’s in another group’

Research on the black sheep effect (e.g., Abrams, Rutland, & Cameron, 2003, Abrams et al., 2013)  tells us that ingroup members think deviants should be punished more severely than outgroup deviants, for the same crime: it is possible that behaving in line with outgroup members represents more of a threat, than simply not following the group rules (for example, by distributing all resources to a charitable cause, thereby following neither groups’ rules). This may be particularly threatening where children can choose to be in one group or another (and when there is mobility across group boundaries) – as opposed to groups which we don’t choose, like race.

A further potential avenue for exploration surrounds the initial instigation of the ingroup norm – which is said to come from the school, for shirt-wearing, and the result of an ingroup vote for money allocation (see the vignette above). Thus, the  child who deviates by not wearing the shirt is breaking a school norm – was it this, rather than the in group norm, that served as the  basis for the participants’ responses? Some participants mentioned this in explaining why the child shouldn’t have been excluded ‘he was doing what the school wanted’. The relative weight of peer group versus school norms is a current topic in this research area, with findings suggesting that peer group norms trump school norms…..(see Nesdale & Lawson, 2011). In the other instance, the deviant is going against a collective, democratic decision: what if this norm had instead also come from the school?

Further interesting questions remain. The participants are told that the in group deviant was present when the exclusion decision was made. This reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, wherein conferences are held among the schoolchildren about whether to send a child to Coventry. What is the effect of publicly versus quietly dismissing the in group deviant?  How does the deviant child  respond? Does the outgroup know of this exclusion? What do they make of it? Would they be more likely to accept this ingroup deviant into their fold? Would the children, given the option, suggest that this should be the case, rather than exclusion into the ether?

This research suggests that children aged 9-13 years perceive something different about appearance versus allocation rules. The best kind of research is fertile research, that asks more questions than it answers, and this is undoubtedly the case here.There is so much we still have to find out about children’s reasoning in groups.


One in the Eye For The Bullies?

The week of 18/11/13 was anti-bullying week, in the UK. This is the week in the year where I avidly follow all media interest in bullying, to try to work out what public perceptions of bullying are or that year, and to keep an eye out for any new research releases.

This year, I spotted an article in the Telegraph about Kate Middleton’s time with a mental health charity for children, Place2Be, focusing on her interest in cyber bullying ( the theme of this year’s awareness week). What struck me, was not so much that the Duchess was interested in this kind of thing ( who wouldn’t be?) but the headline accompanying the hard copy of the write-up about her visit. I’ve photographed and pasted it below:


There are, it seems to me, two issues here. The first is about calling a child a bully, the second is talk of “beating” that child. It is these I would like to explore further in this post.

I’ve just finished marking a set of undergraduate essay drafts, asking quite a few students to avoid using the term ‘bully’ and ‘victim’. This has become the zeitgeist in research papers, and seems to have roots in older research concerning self-fulfilling prophecy, reputation and stereotyping (see, for example, Bansel et al., 2009). Labelling children as victims or bullies it follows from this research, is likely to be unhelpful.

Regarding the second issue, the more I think about it, the more often I can recall instances of “fighting” language when it comes to bullying. It’s a behaviour that’s not liked by many (if any) of us. So talk of beating it seems sound. To talk of “beating” something is synonymous with defeating it. Here, we’re not just talking of beating bullying, but of “striking a blow against child bullies”. Language is powerful stuff. Do we really want to strike out?

The issue, as I see it, in “striking a blow against the bullies” is that, in some instances, it will be the child doing the bullying who is packing the first punches. And it is us using “fighting language” to “strike back”, not at the behaviour, in this case, but at the child. What effect does this imagery have? Is striking seen as purely figurative in this context? It’s interesting at this point, to note that sanctions are among the least effective tools for dealing with bullying (Thompson & Smith, 2011). What is effective is helping children to understand what has happened (see a brief review here). In using such language, we might be fighting (excuse the term) fire with fire.

It might be the case, that as well as avoiding labelling children as bullies, we should avoid using the language of physical violence to describe dealing with the physical bullying of these children. So far as I can see, the research hasn’t been done. It would be interesting to investigate, though.

Free For All? Myths of Open Access

I got a paper accepted a few weeks ago 🙂 All good – especially as it had been more than s year since my last paper was accepted. There’s a ‘publish or perish’ culture in UK academia at the time of writing, so I was more than a bit pleased that one of my papers had made it into a journal.

This week, I got an email about the publication process – it opened my eyes more widely to the publishing system we have in academia , and I thought I would use this blog post to dispel some of the myths surrounding journal publication, at a general, and more specific level.

Myth One – Authors get paid for papers This one seems quite popular among my non-academic friends. The myth is that every time I write a paper, the journal that accepts it pays a fee to the authors in order to publish it – they buy the copyright to it, if you like. This is very much not the case. I get no money from publishing journal articles. The copyright for the article (which strictly speaking belongs to the university, in common with all the intellectual work I produce while I work there, like lectures and workshop materials) is signed over to the publishers around the time of acceptance.

Myth Two – The University gets paid for publications . This myth is a bit more complicated, because within it, there is a kernel of truth. The university is given government money according to the quality of the publications produced by its staff. But, indirectly, the university pays the journal companies large sums of money, in order to have access to journal articles produced by its staff, to populate its libraries.

Myth Three – Authors have access to their own papers . Another tricky one. Unless I delete the original files, I do of course have access to the text that I wrote. But I only have access to the published paper to the extent that I, or the university, pay for that access. At a previous university this access was not forthcoming.

The journal I recently got a paper into allows by default, for me to have a link to send to 49 colleagues free of charge. This is beyond what most journals usually provide. I should, in fairness, as first author, divide this quota by the paper’s seven co-authors. After, and only after, an embargo period, I am allowed to place it in the university repository ( and thereby link to it for free on my own websites). Unless, that is, I pay a fee. I can pay for special access, so that my paper is accessible free-for-all, and I am allowed to link to it on my website. As I understand it, from the publisher’s website, the charge for this is £1 788 per article, for the journal in question. I won’t be choosing this option, and don’t know of any post-docs in a position to do so. If you are in this position, please let me know….


So, open access certainly doesn’t seem synonymous with free-for-all, as things stand. Of course, I recognize that someone has to pay for article production, and definitions of what counts as ‘intellectual property’ are beyond the scope of this post. That aside, at the moment, with my papers stuck behind expensive journal subscription pay walls, however much I write, not much good is being done for either the academic or public dissemination of scientific knowledge. I publish or I perish. But who reads?